When the “free” elections in South Africa happened in 1994, I was a 19 year-old college freshman at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. Fortunately, I had become friends with many South Africans on my campus, and in the neighboring universities that dot the central and Southern Ohio landscape. I remember looking at a copy of the ballot, given to me by my roommate’s mother, and seeing the dozens of candidates of many political parties that made up the government of the “New” South Africa, which strangely enough, has turned out to be as new as the “new” American South. Nevertheless, we all (African, and Blacks from the US and Caribbean) assembled in front of the televisions to watch Nelson Mandela become the new President of South Africa, and transforming the ANC from an insurgent revolutionary movement to becoming the dominant political party of the neoliberal nation.
Little did I know, at 19 years old the price that had to be paid for the “progress” that the country was undertaking. While I now know that many were skeptical, few Black Americans knew that price better than Frank Wilderson, III, one of only two American Black members of the ANC, who with several other ANC members, was labeled by Nelson Mandela, “a threat to national security” in 1995.
Wilderson, author of the newly published and highly controversial memoir Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid offers an incisive view of how to a liberation movement that becomes a political party. He also reckons with what happens to a revolutionary who returns to a U.S. Left, mired in the politics of gaining access to the “rights” of civil society in multi-culti California.
I met Wilderson this past Sunday at a small reading at the Salon D’Afrique, a longstanding Harlem salon hosted by writer and scholar, Dr. Rashida Ismaili Abu-bakr, who gave a reading to about 15 invited guests would be engaged in a political dialogue with the author about the book, which according to Wilderson, intentionally does not offer a “what to do next” proscription for progressive movements in the U.S. or abroad.
“The Black demand is for subjectivity,” stated Wilderson. “But progressive political movements must have a coherent goal, but the reality is that the demand cannot be met by a coherent demand, like a civil rights policy for access into civil society.”
Though he talked a little about the book’s structure—modeled after the 1987 autobiography of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur (currently in exile in Cuba), and written with chapters alternating between South Africa and the U.S.
“The organizational structure comes from Assata Shakur—how do you write about a revolutionary underground movement, anti-black racism in liberal and progressive California, and also the use of poetry,” Wilderson remarked.
Many of the guests who’d read the book were struck by the biography of his early life, the son of two academics who were the first family to integrate a Minneapolis suburb., which as Dr. Ismaili noted, “was not the stereotypical background of a Black revolutionary.”
Others, including myself, were struck by the places of sheet vulnerability in the work of a Black male political memoir. I am still reading the book, but I find this aspect of the book particularly refreshing.
The other central question of the book, partly made by the books structure is what are any real difference between the U.S. and South Africa? The book recounts one story illustrating this point. In one trip back to the U.S. with his South African wife at the time, she leaves him in New York telling him that if she wanted apartheid, she could get it at home.
This notion flies in the face of what so many on the left extrapolate from Black leftist politics—people seem to love the idea that Black revolutionaries learn to transcend concerns about Black people to take on more “international” concerns. From Malcolm X‘s trip to Mecca and MLK’s speech on opposing the Vietnam War, Black radicals can make it into the leftist pantheon of stars. Wilderson is drawing the conclusion that anti-Black racism is a global phenomenon and has yet to be addressed, let alone already solved, as much of the Left seems to purport.
“The world needs the Black position,” Wilderson said.
And though my friends, in 1994, watched the elections in South Africa with some level of pride and relief, we knew that being Black, whether from Soweto or St. Louis, Mombassa or Montego Bay, is what brought us into that room in the student center, shut away from the rest of the campus. But that hope we had, is exposed as a fraud in this book, and by the realities of where South Africa is headed. One of those friends, who was instrumental in my political growth, was killed in Soweto, sometime around 2001. South Africa continues to expand its prison system much like the US, and HIV/AIDS rates in Black communities in the US that literally rival those of Africans on the continent.
Incognegro, as a book, and WIlderson’s incessant and unrelenting look at the failure of the integration of Black concerns and liberation into “civil society” makes me highly recommend this book, and suggest you get yourself over the next few days over to one of his three readings in New York City.
October 21, 2008, 6-8pm
Medgar Evers College, CUNY
1650 Bedford Avenue
October 22, 2008 7:30-9:30pm
The Brecht Forum
451 West Street (between Bank & Bethune Streets)
New York, NY
October 23, 2008 06:30PM – 08:30PM
New York University
Meyer Hall, Rm. 121
4 Washington Place [between Broadway and Mercer]
New York, NY